By Jo Murphy 18 Sep, 2017
Men are watching women. Women are watching each other. And so the foundations of relations between men and women, between women and women, between women and themselves, are laid (so they can get laid).

Yes, that’s me in the red swimsuit, aged 16 and full of hope. I’d just received my GCSE results – a big shiny buffet of A* – but that didn’t matter at the time because, well, thighs , and I was already envisioning my thin future full of men. Oh my.

Fast forward 20 plus years and I’m sorting through old photo albums when I see her. She’s staring out at me, page after page, imploring me to see her beauty . And I do. I see that she was indeed beautiful. She still is.

Wait, did I just pay myself a compliment? Ballsy, I know.

It’s not always been this way though. I was never enough of anything; you know, the usual story . But if this story is so commonplace, why dismiss it? It is, after all, at the very core of all that inhibits our ability to form fulfilling relationships.

When I look at this bright young beauty I know that, despite her academic success, she was clueless . Thinking too little of herself, giving too much of herself away. Life had thus far taught her she needed someone else, likely a man, to validate her existence. To tell her she was, over and above anything else, easy on the eye. Sigh.

My sense of identity was wrapped up in what others thought (or what I thought they thought) of my body . And I readily ditched my principles if they threatened to interfere with the possibility of someone acknowledging that I was, indeed, easy on the eye.

I was, we might say, ‘male-identified’.

But when I think this over, I wonder if men sometimes become female-identified? Do they edit themselves in order to bag the shag? I’m sure they do, and yet somehow this idea falls flat. The classic heterosexual set-up will still pitch him as the predator (the watcher) and her as the prey (the watched).

It’s a game in which we’re all complicit since we’re all motivated by the desire to be desired. We all want to be seen. To be held. No matter the cost to the image we hold of ourselves. So that means we’re all in this together, right?

And yet, as a woman, I cannot deny that I’ve repeatedly objectified myself in order to be held. Nevermind that I want to be respected, the yearning to be desired runs deeper. Nevermind that I want to be seen as both a sexual and an intellectual being, I struggle to reconcile the two. Most of us do.

When we look at a woman, we just can’t get past her sex.

And who can blame us? Turn on the TV and it’s tits galore. Strippers idly gyrating (in the background) of mainstream shows as men (in the forefront) have the conversations pivotal to the storyline. Switch channels and we see murder victims picked over in all their naked rape-torn glory. It’s a constant stream of female flesh being broadcast into our subconscious.

And this is the very thing that’s driving a wedge between men and women, between women and women, between women and themselves. We have no hope of truly seeing and holding each other until we get past this matter of the female flesh. We’re wielding it like a blockade.

Sex, we believe, brings us together. But really it’s driving us further apart so long as men desire – and women desire to be desired – in this superficial way. It’s a system of conquest and seduction that propagates all of our insecurities.

But I’m not here to blame the men. Instead I want to ask the women this; are you subscribing to your own objectification, knowingly or unknowingly? What kind of ideals are you holding yourself, and other women, to?

We may buy the glossy magazines without knowing what we’re really buying into. We may say we want equality but puke up dessert and run to the scales. Worse still, we may judge each other for doing – or not doing – the same.

When we chase physical perfection, we may believe we’re chasing an idea of freedom and empowerment, but it will never come to us this way. Beauty, and the value we place on it, has nothing to do with appearance. Instead it prescribes a type of behaviour, it’s a cultural requirement that allows the watchers to watch.

And, even if a woman challenges the beauty industry for profiting from her insecurities, she may add “but it’s just as bad for men these days”. No doubt it is, but we don’t always have to look at the things that hurt females through the lens of the male experience, as if to validate the pain. It stands on its own.

Until we understand this, women will remain sexist too.

It doesn’t serve us to simply attack or blame yet another patriarchal construct that we believe exists outside of us. Instead we must deconstruct the ways in which we are perpetrating it ourselves .

If we don’t address our own inner prejudices we won’t change a damn thing on the outside.

Trust me. I struggle to come to terms with the amount of time and money some women invest in their appearance. I can’t get my head around the idea you can be both ‘woke’ and get your nails done every week (sexual and intellectual). Thus I stereotype my glamorous sisters and inhibit my own emancipation.

My conscious (feminist) mind tells me a woman can dress however she damn well pleases, so long as her motivation is founded in self-expression, self-celebration – dressing up should empower, not debilitate. But my subconscious mind still tells me dressing up means dumbing down (sexual, not intellectual).

And that’s the problem. However honourable our conscious intentions may be, our subconscious mind is mostly running the show. It’s what fuels our confirmation bias – the way we seek evidence of what we believe to be true; that a woman is to be watched and, if she does have an opinion, this serves to negate her femininity, her sexuality.

So let’s look at the ways in which we’ve been wired by this belief system and the ways we engender its continuation. If we bear witness to the system at work on the outside, we’re better equipped to start changing it on the inside.

With this I want to take you to Rome, the veritable birthplace of patriarchy and a city I have a longstanding love affair with. I know; the irony is not lost. Whenever I’m there, however, I actively seek out the women. It’s a form of overcompensation, of redressing the balance, as men in clericals line the streets.

I was on my habitual pilgrimage two weeks ago, looking for Our Lady, for pagan goddesses, mythical heroines; the divine in female form – I sought her out in churches, temples, galleries and museums. I saw saints, chaste with downcast eyes, sinners in states of undress. I met the tragic, the transcendent, the holy and the slutty. I noted the number of naked beauties fleeing their impending abduction and rape.

Male active. Female passive.

It was all so binary, this or that, either-or . Not just in the rigid gender scripts played out by men and women over the centuries, but more so in the grotesque parodies women have had to embody – her flesh defines her, detains her.

Next I took in a collection of Hollywood portraits from the 40s and 50s. Nearly all were girl-next-door types transformed and catapulted into stardom – their allure manufactured to meet a collective desire, their talent an afterthought. And yet, behind the smoke and mirrors, each had a story to tell.

Then came an exhibition on Marilyn Monroe, a sexpot whose activism is oft overlooked. She used her body to gain influence and set new precedents for future female stars. She was also used for her body. It may have served to emancipate others, but it sadly trapped her .

So let’s pause here and ask, what does any of this have to do with the girl in the red swimsuit?

Everything. She’s grown into a women who aspires to embody each and every one of these female icons, in all of their grace and disgrace, their serenity and disquiet, their sensuality and intelligence, their vulnerability and stoicism, plumptious, fecund, taking up space.

I am all of these women inside one woman, one body.  

The way I look does not tell you one story, but a hundred different tales of who I am, who I’ve been and who I want to become. I do not have to choose just one. And whichever I choose doesn’t have to be beautiful in your eyes, but mine. And whichever I choose doesn’t have to be desirable to you, but me.

Our bodies are physical manifestations of all the uniqueness that’s contained therein.

Understanding this is how we make the transition from male-identified to self-identified, how we become a woman one-in-herself. Until we make that transition, however, we play into the hands of prescriptive social and heterosexual ideals that prevent anyone from truly seeing or holding anyone else – no matter how deep our desire runs.

Girls may temper their talents in school to appear more attractive to boys. Grown women may hide their intellect so as not to threaten their lovers. Are we truly willing to believe that men and boys are intimidated by the female brain?

I’d like to think not.

Defining masculinity and femininity in such narrow terms (active and passive) also narrows the terms of our relationships. But if we allowed a woman to be real, to fully occupy all of her dimensions, physical or otherwise, we allow a man to do the same. If a woman is free to explore the person she is because and in spite of her body, she invites a man to do the same.

We must, however, start with the women and our long fight to live in and love our bodies, as they are , before we share them with anyone else. I know we cannot be feminists if we think only of women, but our feminism takes root first and foremost in our experience as women .

For centuries we’ve had no control over our outer worlds, and yet we’ve readily relinquished control of our inner too – the very place we can instigate change. So let’s stop watching each other and let’s start watching ourselves instead.

Notice the space between your conscious intent and subconscious discontent. It is here that liberation awaits you. It is here that you can decide what you want to believe and discard the rest.

And let the men watch.

Let them observe your emancipation, the way you see, hold and respect yourself irrespective of them. That’s sexy as hell, IMHO, as your flesh, no longer a barrier, takes on new resonance as the container of you .

And you are enough.

Feminism, you see, doesn’t take sex off the menu. It aims to get us all off on the experience of being fully alive and free, relishing the skin we’re in. It aims to give new meaning to our coming together . Amen to that.

By Jo Murphy 01 Sep, 2017
I’m sorry for trying to change you into someone you had no desire to be. 

There’s a flaw in my plan. I see it now. This whole dating debacle has been a revelation. I was so focused on changing this man that I overlooked one vital fact – a person can only meet you as deeply as they have met themselves

And this applies to many people who’ve challenged my convictions and inspired me to dig my heels in deeper. Too deep, in fact, and I’ve found myself shouting louder, losing my cool. Dammit. 

My frustration can get the better of me since I’ve spent the best part of 39 years trying to be seen as a person rather than an object

And this is where the ladysplaining comes in. I want everyone to understand that (despite my frustration) it doesn’t serve me (as a woman) to try to flip patriarchy on its head and create a matriarchy. 

Power is the same destructive force no matter who holds it. 

I’m more concerned with the exchange of ideas and opinions – having real conversations with people who hold different ideas and opinions – than winning any debate. My mission is to achieve mutual understanding, not world domination. 

Yet, as a woman, this is harder for me to do than it is for a man – all thanks to that little thing called the male gaze. Maybe you’ve heard of it. And, even if you haven’t, you’re most certainly familiar with it since it’s the way we all view the world through the masculine lens. 

Consider for a moment how women are portrayed in the media as the objects of discussion. Rarely are we permitted to become a subject engaged in the discussion. So, to simplify, the male gaze abides by one rule. 

Male active. Female passive. 

It’s a system of domination that always puts the powerful above the weak, which, of course, is not limited to gender. We see it in racism, homophobia – all zealotry. I simply draw inspiration from my own experience, which tells me this.

Gender is irrelevant when you’re on a power trip.  

Who is anyone to impose his of her views upon anyone else? Indeed. And yet, as a woman, this has been happening to me my whole life. I’ve been subjected to those who’ve practically held me down and force-fed me their worldview. 

Once again, I’m not attacking men. I could, in fact, say something about feminists needing male allies, but this would imply that only women can be feminists, and the very word ‘ally’ implies there’s a fight for power going on here. 

No, no, that’s the very antithesis of what I’m trying to do. Instead I want to be an advocate for the female gaze , the awareness that there is no one dominant way to view the world. 

The female gaze asks us to open our eyes to the many different views of life, to open our ears to the many different stories of life, to open our hearts to the many different experiences of life. To meet people where they are. 

It’s all about inclusivity, connection and understanding. It focuses on the objectification rather than the object. It empathises with the experience of others rather than trying to impose upon that experience. See? No power play. 

So why do I feel compelled to ladysplain this lady gaze if it’s all-inclusive? Is it because women are believed to empathise more readily? Or is it because we are expected to empathise more readily?

Woman, as the perpetual object, has become more responsive to the gaze (and opinions and needs) of the subject. Which means she often sees and hears things that hurt her, she can feel ‘under attack’. 

And, if a woman has felt disempowered her whole life, she may try to instigate power play as her defence. She attacks back. Believe me, I know. Remember that poor sod ? I all but eviscerated him during a heated ‘discussion’ the other day. 

I’m ashamed to admit this, but it feels good and right to do so. 

We ended up on a second date because I wanted to make a point. When someone won’t listen to me, won’t acknowledge that I have an opinion, I find myself trying to gain control of the situation. Worse still, I find myself force-feeding some poor sod my particular brand of self-help feminism, even if it’s making him gag. 

It’s one thing to hold myself to a high ideal, but quite another to do the same to someone who is neither interested in nor aware of the need to change. On the whole, I’m all-empathy. I’m all-ears. I always want to talk about it, to level the playing field and forge meaningful connection. And yet, in certain situations, this can come off as power play.

Maybe it’s the coach in me. Maybe it’s the feminist. I can call out someone’s shit in record time. This doesn’t mean, however, that I have to throw it in their face.

So, yes, things got heated when he wouldn’t listen to me, wouldn’t acknowledge that I have an opinion, that I too am a subject . What part of me believed I could change the mind of someone so set in his ways? No matter how much I raised my voice, it fell on deaf ears. It often does. 

To shout about the female experience can inspire eye rolls and instruction to ‘calm down’. And this is what inspires our female fervour. Which is what causes the female gaze to go awry. So riled are we that we can no longer see past our own subjective take on the matter. 

And yet if our only tactic is to keep drawing attention to the things that make others uncomfortable (like sexism), we will never instigate the change we so desire. People will keep turning away from us because society – the male gaze –permits them to do so. The current system suits them very nicely, so banging on about equality to people who don’t want to hear it won’t change a thing. 

When you’re accustomed to power, equality can feel like oppression. 

But we don’t have to become bigots to challenge bigotry. It is not for us to change those resistant to change. Instead let us change the things that influence them, shape them, hold them in place. Let us shake the containers of sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, all the power trips.

Let’s change the ways people are motivated to gain approval , acceptance and power by moving the social parameters that define these things. Ah, now they have to sit up and take notice. As long as the male gaze dominates, it remains ‘acceptable’ for certain people to behave in ways that hurt everyone else. They feel comfortable, reassured, of their behaviours. And yet, if we activated the female gaze, they might not feel so comfortable, so reassured. 

They may ask themselves, is this what it feels like not to have all the power? And, having experienced life on the other side of the fence, they may know something of empathy. They may feel compelled to meet themselves, and others,  on a deeper level . They may be compelled to change of their own accord

Our aim, you see, is not to threaten or disempower anyone, but to give them opportunities to relate . There is no one person whose truth is not threatened by someone else’s truth. There is no one person who isn’t hurting in some way. Even those holding the power are in pain. 

All attack is a cry for help.  

So, let’s help. Here's what I propose. Challenge the male gaze not by attacking it, or trying to seize control of it, but by controlling your reaction to it . You do not have to respond in kind. Take the higher road instead. Lead by example. Be open and empathetic, yes, but also firm. 

Don’t take any shit; don’t give any either. Don’t turn the other cheek; look them straight in the eye. Don’t put up and shut up; ask for an explanation. If it's not acceptable, tell them why. Raise the standards, not your voice. You are your own authority. 

The aim is to act like equals. Male active. Female active . Let’s show the world what this looks like by creating better outcomes in each situation. Like that second date: I cannot revisit it, but I can tend to the aftermath. 

I’ve since apologised without expecting anything in return. And I've explained what caused my anger. But I cannot coerce his response and nor would I want to. What he does with this apology is none of my concern. The fact I said sorry is. It's simply an invitation to meet me somewhere in the middle. 

I can see how he’s hurting himself (as well as me). And I can empathise. But that’s where he is and this is where I am. We are men and women, and we will never be the same, but we should be able to meet each other where we are .

We’re all human, after all, and our shared humanity means we all have the ability to empathise. We all have the ability to meet ourselves and each other on a deeper level. Not just the women. 

So yes, I’m sorry I tried to change you into someone you had no desire to be.

But I will never stop trying to change what I can without imposition

Thank you for reminding me of what I came here to do.  
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